How technology is enabling the new hybrid workspace
Like thousands of companies in the early days of the global pandemic, Unisys was forced to dramatically shift how it conducts business with little time to prepare.
But over the course of a week, the Blue Bell, Pennsylvania-based technology firm enabled 95 percent of its 17,000 employees to work remotely. Over the next three months, it canceled $31 million worth of commercial leases. And to make this new operating model work, Unisys also had to rethink its entire organizational structure, says Eric Hutto, president and chief operating officer of the $2 billion company.
"We had to get simpler," he says. "I couldn't continue to spend 19 hours on Zoom calls and still run the company. We needed 12 people on a call to make a decision, not 70. We realized pretty quickly that our old operating model would not work in a remote-first world."
While Unisys will continue to maintain office space after the pandemic subsides, Hutto says, it'll be using less of it and in different ways—primarily for collaboration between in-person and remote teams.
"We're not mandating that everyone go back into the office," he says. "We're more focused on figuring out how to make our remote environment work better."
Unisys is hardly alone. An April 2021 survey by IDC found that 23 percent of companies plan to allow employees to work primarily from home or other remote locations in 2022, up from 3 percent before the pandemic. The biggest reasons: to ensure employee safety (62 percent), enable a better employee experience (61 percent), and maintain high productivity (52 percent).
In the IDC survey, more than three quarters of both business leaders and employees said remote workers are at least as productive as their in-office colleagues.
For people whose professions offer the flexibility to operate from anywhere, hybrid work is here to stay. But the new workplace won't look much like the old one, and it will require a range of emerging technologies—from IoT-enabled smart buildings to AI-based video monitoring—to make it a reality.
Not your dad's office building
At 77 West Wacker, a gleaming 50-story tower in the heart of the Chicago Loop, tenants use their phones to badge in, summon an elevator, enter bathrooms, reserve building amenities, check indoor air quality, and alert management when there's an issue that requires attention.
The pandemic brought a renewed focus on building health and safety, says Myrna Coronado-Brookover, senior vice president of asset services at Transwestern, which manages commercial buildings in 33 cities across the U.S. So in October 2020, it introduced TranswesternHub, a mobile app for touchless building operations.
"Transparency is key," says Coronado-Brookover. "People want to know whether it's safe to come back to the office. And the most efficient way to do this is through technology."
But many employees may go in only a few days a week or month, for meetings or projects where they need to collaborate with colleagues. That means office floor plans will change, with more shared spaces and fewer individual offices.
So-called hot desking will become the norm for some companies, says Juliana Beauvais, research manager for enterprise applications at IDC. Employees who plan to go into the office may sign into a workspace scheduling app like Condeco or SpaceIQ the night before, then be assigned a desk based on what they're doing or who they're working with that day. Or they may be told there isn't any room, due to capacity limits.
"Employees are going to be more like visitors in their own office," says Beauvais. "They'll be there less frequently and will be using a wider variety of spaces, which means there will be a lot more people who don't know where they're going."
Indoor analytics show the way
When employees do show up, they'll need to know where they're working that day. They might check in with a digital receptionist that shows them directions to their workspace, or they'll use a way-finding app like Steerpath or CXApp to guide them along an optimal route, minimizing contact with other employees.
By communicating with Bluetooth beacons installed every 20 feet within an office, CXApp can offer turn-by-turn directions, much like an indoor version of Google Maps, says CXApp founder Leon Papkoff, whose company was recently acquired by Inpixon.
After COVID, indoor location services went from being a nice-to-have to a must-have, says Papkoff, especially for organizations that hired people during the pandemic who have yet to set foot on their new employer's campus. Inpixon's technology is also being used in conjunction with the analytics and location engines found in enterprise-class wireless access points, such as Aruba's.
The same technology can be used for contact tracing if employees come in contact with an infected person or a contaminated space, adds Papkoff. And it can collect analytics about which spaces within a building are being used, as well as how many people are there each day—essential information for organizations hoping to right-size their commercial real estate investments.
Figuring out the amount of space a business needs for its employees used to be relatively straightforward, says Beauvais. Take your projected headcount, multiply that by the amount of square footage each person requires, and then lease that amount of space. Not anymore.
"Most companies don't have a clue how much real estate they will need for people to do their work," she says. "Today, they're taking time to instrument their facilities, aggregate the data, and make real estate decisions once we reach a steady state, which could be five to seven years down the road."
Lin Nease, HPE Fellow and IoT chief technologist, points out that vendors also have to rethink the way they focus on customers, noting that these workplace changes have impacted more than just the IT departments. "You only get so many opportunities to get HR, real estate, and IT in the same room," he says, adding that it's important to make sure all the bases are covered.
"As a result of so many customers rethinking their workplace strategies, we had to come up with a common advisory tool—our workplace transformation workshop—to better structure these conversations and make sure we didn't miss anything," Nease says. When technology partners are an integral part of an organization's operations, it only makes sense to be on the same page.
When the chickens come home to roost
Now that people have had more than a year of working from home, it's become harder for companies to lure people back to the office full time, notes Mark Campbell, chief innovation officer at Evotek, a digital business implementer.
"They like the 58-second commute and the ability to drink their own coffee," he says. "Many people will choose to be with a mediocre company that lets them work remotely versus an awesome company that forces them to go into an office. It's going to be difficult to put that genie back in the bottle."
Before the pandemic, Evotek was about to lease a new office in Denver, Campbell adds. Now, its Colorado employees are full-time remote, with temporary space available when in-person meetings are required.
After scrambling to get everyone set up on video conferencing and VPNs when the lockdown began, enterprises are trying to ensure that remote employees have access to the same technological resources as their office colleagues.
"The buzzword du jour is digital parity," notes Amy Loomis, research director for Future of Work at IDC. "The key to achieving that is to look beyond the technical requirements of communication and collaboration and build a parity of experience for all employees, regardless of physical location."
For example, AI-enabled cameras that automatically identify who's in the room can make at-home employees feel authentically connected with office colleagues, she adds. Employee experience platforms like Microsoft Viva can also level the playing field between remote and on-site workers.
Evotek has outfitted its employee home workstations with dual flat-screen monitors, high-quality AV equipment, and sophisticated bidirectional noise cancellation technology that automatically mutes the sound of a crying baby or a barking dog, Campbell says.
"Some of our international customers have chickens crowing in the background," he says. "This emerging technology uses AI to remove the background noise—chickens and all."
The harder part is ensuring security when the network perimeter is somebody's spare bedroom, Campbell notes. Old-school virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technology, and its cloud-based equivalent desktop as a service (DaaS), are being deployed by organizations that are fearful of letting sensitive or proprietary data loose in the wild.
Because VDI and DaaS send only screen grabs to remote computers, the data itself never leaves the organization, making it less likely to be leaked, lost, or stolen.
Using the technology in combination with Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) platforms, cloud-based cybersecurity suites that put protections closer to end users can alleviate most major security concerns, Campbell adds.
The AI is watching
But financial services companies and other organizations that must meet regulatory requirements may need more advanced solutions for remote workers. For example, Theta Lake integrates with leading collaboration platforms and filters video, audio, chat, and documents as they are being shared, flagging potential compliance and security violations for later review.
Theta Lake uses AI to identify problematic content—such as personally identifiable information displayed in a spreadsheet, derogatory or sexist language in an online chat, or a Confederate flag in the background of a Zoom call—and send it to the compliance team for remediation.
With thousands of video meetings happening each day, large enterprises don't have the resources to monitor every interaction for policy violations, notes Dan Nadir, chief product officer at Theta Lake. He adds that interest in his firm's monitoring technology has accelerated significantly during the pandemic.
Today, the technology can flag violations only after they've occurred. In the future, it should be able to detect and address them in real time.
"The ability to kick someone out of a meeting, turn off their camera, or start recording if someone says something they shouldn't is not quite supported by the platforms yet," he adds. "But that's definitely coming down the road, and it's something companies want to see."
Remote work without FOMO
But parity also means having access to the same conversations and opportunities for advancement, whether an employee is in the corporate headquarters, working from a small home office, or logging in from a cabin in Montana.
If people fear they're missing out by working remotely, hybrid work schemes won't endure for long, Hutto says. So, in addition to adopting new technology, organizations may also need to adjust their corporate culture.
"You can't have conversations over Zoom with colleagues and then have different conversations with people in the office where great ideas come up," he says. "You've got to capture that and get that information to the people who just hung up, so they're not at a disadvantage. If we don't do that, people won't trust the system."
Ultimately, we will need to redefine "the office" as wherever work happens, regardless of its actual location.
"The office of the future is Starbucks. It's the beach. It's the bar in the country club where the CEO is sitting with her laptop after she's played a round of golf," says Hutto. "We need to be able to enable that and become comfortable with it."
"The buzzword du jour is digital parity. The key to achieving that is to look beyond the technical requirements of communication and collaboration and build a parity of experience for all employees, regardless of physical location."
This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.